Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Hall Mall: History of a Counterculture Institution NOTE: A reprint of a REALLY old story I wrote for Little Village about the history of Iowa City's haven for counterculture businesses. The building owners are ending that history this month. -r
Like many people who grew up in the area, I first encountered much of what is referred to as "Counterculture” in Iowa City. Since the 1960's, Iowa City has had the dubious distinction of being the center of Counterculture in Iowa and it has been home to countless bars, galleries, bookshops, record stores, boutiques and music venues catering to tastes outside of the mainstream. Those of us who have spent some time in this town occasionally grow nostalgic for favorite spots long gone. I was imprinted early - I spent a lot of time as a child playing between the aisles of Epstein's Bookstore while my parents attended poetry readings. Even at the age of nine, I felt very much at home among the beats and the hippies. In my teens and early 20's, hardcore punk was my thing, and the Unitarian Church basement was the center of our DIY scene. Still, as times changed and scenes have come and gone, certain institutions have survived. Gabe'n'Walkers/Gabe's Oasis/Gabe's/The Picador is one such institution - despite its recent change in ownership and the removal of the G-word, The bar at 330 Washington remains the most consistent venue for local and up-and-coming bands. The New Pioneer Coop is another – although many of their original hippy base have turned in their VW beetles for Volvo station wagons and now shop for aged balsamic vinegar rather than mung bean sprouts, it is still the town’s only retail food coop, and has employed countless artists, musicians and slackers since its inception in the early seventies. Along with these institutions and a handful of others, another, less illustrious cornerstone of Iowa City’s alternative scene has survived since the early seventies. Less of a cornerstone, perhaps, than a cinderblock rammed under the axle of a rusting 69 microbus, The Hall Mall has remained the reliable source for all things counterculture since the days when Jim Morrison walked the earth. Dubbed "The Upstairs Underground" by tattoo artist and Hall Mall veteran Stingray, it has been home to countless vintage shops, record stores, smoke shops and tattoo parlors, providing Iowa City with its own microscopic version of London's Kensington Market or New York's St. Mark's Place. Like the universe, the Hall Mall is in a constant state of chaos. Businesses come and go, but the vibe remains the same. The merchants maintain an "anything goes" feel and a cooperative attitude that warms the hearts of libertarians and anarcho-socialists alike. "The rent is cheap and the attitude is loose," according to Bil at Focus Body Piercing. "It's the kind of place that, if you are thinking about starting a business, you can go for it. We have built-in foot traffic and the people up here support each other." Over the years it has been home to businesses with names like The Wicca Shop, Underground Stereo, The Plainswoman Bookstore, Hemp Cat, Good Times, Ruby Tuesday, and Electric Head. The current residents include Exile Tattoo, Focus Body Piercing, The Konnexion, Antiques and Oddities, Rusty Records, FERAL!, the recently opened Convenience Store and Velocipede InfoShop, and the soon to open White Rabbit. Located above the ped mall at 114 1/2 East College Street, the entrance to the Hall Mall is an inconspicuous doorway sandwiched between College Street Billiards and Vito's. The narrow, poorly lit stairwell leads upstairs to a long, open vestibule, flanked by a series of identically transomed doorways, framed in dark wood popular at the time of the building’s construction at the turn of the last century. Reminiscent of a seedy office building where Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe might have hung out their shingles, one can imagine these offices once housing green-visored bookkeepers or dark-eyed palmists. Something about the location and the modest size has made it the lair of independent small businesses for over a century. The building which houses the Hall Mall was known in days past as the Schneider Building, originally the home of Schneider Brothers Furniture, Carpet and Rugs. City records show that in 1916, the Schneider Brothers empire had grown to encompass three buildings on the block, and in addition to the furniture business, the building at 114 was listed as "furniture and undertaker." During the 1920's, the upstairs began to be listed as a separate address, 114 1/2, "The Schneider Building Offices." In the following decades, the offices housed a beauty shop, a number of lawyers, real estate brokers, lenders, "Morford the Chain Man", a publisher, and by the sixties, it was home to the Johnson County Democrats, Alcoholics Anonymous, and L.L. Pelling, now one of the biggest paving companies in the Midwest. In the early seventies, when downtown business districts across the nation began their decline, many of the spaces at 114 1/2 went empty. It was not long before a new breed of hippie entrepreneurs, including Gregory J. Stokesberry, discovered them. Also known as "The Wizzard" (a moniker bestowed upon him by the late great artist Ed "Big Daddy" Roth), Stokesberry moved in to four adjoining spaces formerly occupied by L.L. Pelling in 1975. Along with Red Rose Old Clothes and Emerald City, "Gregory J. Stokesberry - Organic Merchant" was one of the original pioneers of the counterculture business revolution that would become the Hall Mall. I recently visited "Wizzard World Headquarters" in Cedar Rapids Czech Village, where Stokesberry runs his current business, marketing original artwork and t-shirts and publishing a magazine, all targeted at the "Kustom Kulture" audience.
"The Hall Mall was the only place in town where a start up could find some cheap space," says Stokesberry. "I got married and had to make a living. I was into antiques, I was in to green plants, all the hippie decor stuff, ya know, and I was in to the birds and monkeys (editors note: exotic animals, not the bands) so that's what I did. I was a hail and hearty lad with a pickup truck - I used to move jukeboxes up and down those stairs." "The first were Rose (Red Rose Old Clothes) and Kirk at Emerald City - I moved in after them. We all tried to make it nice ... I used to go out and get a bottle of sherry and cookies from Barbara's Bakery. Every afternoon we would have cookies and sherry ... it was always real cool. Eventually the bums started coming up and grabbing handfuls of cookies...the unemployed bums, I mean, as opposed to us employed bums." The Wizzard was kind enough to take me to his storage space where we discovered a drowsy raccoon sleeping in front of the original sign that once hung outside his store. It is a hand-carved piece by Bill Schnute, the master woodcarver whose work was a hallmark of Iowa City hippie style. Several of those original businesses survived and thrived, becoming essential parts of the downtown scene, catering to the tastes of those who couldn't find what they wanted in the sterility of the growing mall culture. Throughout the 80's and 90's, the Hall Mall housed a continuous flow of alternative businesses. "This was the place to be - I had heard of this place in Chicago. I moved out here when my girlfriend came to go to college, and I started tattooing up here in '95. At the height of the grunge era, it was always full of people," says Stingray at Exile Tattoo. It was the 90's - the economy was strong and business was good, and a second generation of Hall Mall regulars was coming of age with their own taste for the bizarre...but times were about to change. Corporate America was waking up to the potential for profit in the underground scene, and set out to create a safe, mall friendly version to sell to the masses. By the end of the 90's, the political climate in America was changing as well. The election of George W. Bush in 2000 heralded the beginning of an era of new conservatism and intolerance, and places like the Hall Mall were bound to experience the fallout. Hemp Cat, a hemp clothing store and one of the Hall Mall's most popular businesses, was raided in 2001 by the “The Man” and although no charges were filed, their computers were confiscated and they were forced out of business. Several other long-time mainstays left. Stingray and several others left, and Electric Head went into decline. There was a fire. The Hall Mall hit hard times. People began asking "is there anybody up there anymore?" It was down, but not out. A new generation began to take up residence. The Konnexion, Davey Jones Tattoo, the Lowbrow Cafe and Rusty Records opened, and they were working hard to bring the Hall Mall back to life. In 2004, with the independent spirit, youthful zeal and naiveté which is a hallmark of Hall Mall tenants, Kelly Stucker bought an existing Hall Mall smoke shop, “Shasta Mountain,” reopening under the name "The Konnexion." “I just kinda jumped in with both feet and hoped to hell it would work out.” “I used to hang out at the Hall Mall when I was about fifteen – I remember flirting with the cute guy at Moon Mystique. Twelve years later, I have my shop in that same spot…it felt really freakin’ awesome when I got my key to the front door and the old Moon Mystique. It was just fate…” In October of 2004, my wife Ericka and I were pedaling my paintings and custom bikes and her jewelry at the "Inktober" Tattoo Expo when we met Kelly and Davey. They convinced us that the Hall Mall was coming back, and we should consider renting a space. We opened FERAL! on a shoestring, just before Christmas, selling vintage oddities, lowrider bikes and outsider art and homemade organic catnip toys. It seemed, somehow, like a good fit. "The Hall Mall revival is underway," according to Brad Allison of Antiques and Oddities, one of the most recent residents. "Back in the day, there was a waiting list to get a space here. 20 years later, there is space available, and I jumped at the chance." As with all things, the cycle is coming back around, and the "Schneider Building Offices" are being reinvented once again. The Hall Mall has become a music venue, featuring some of the best young acts in the area and offering the only space in town available to the experimental and unabashedly weird. Plans are underway to give the hallway a new look, and to do a mural project in the stairwell. Before long, we hope to have a film festival. Free wireless and comfy sofas provide one of the few smoker-friendly places to study and hang out. As it has always been, the potential of the space is limited only by the resourcefulness of its occupants. As I grow older and more cynical, I remain optimistic about the Hall Mall. As I watch the increasing corporatization of our society, it seems more and more essential to maintain an outpost whose only mission is to buck the system. If counterculture can truly have a tradition, it is ours to uphold. Like Marlon Brando in "The Young Ones," when asked, "Hey Johnny, What are you rebelling against?" the Hall Mall answers, "What have you got?"

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Mick Farren: The last OBSOLETE! Story.

This was supposed to be the first of a series of stream-of-conciousness column/rant/stories that Mick was going to write for OBSOLETE! Unfortunately, it was to be the last piece he will write for us. It's classic Mick Farren.
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WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM, AGENT X9?

”The very planet proves to be alive. And very pissed off.”

The report on you is filed, my friend. You, Agent X9, above all others, should realize that the data cannot be reversed. The algorithms of the Corporate Hegemony are inflexible. The images are graven. They rule with cool and absolute binary authority. The database may only be amended and items only added to the labyrinths of detail and the profiles that stretch to the edge of entropy. The report has been filed Agent X9. It has joined the endless and ultimately personal catalogues of caprices and conceits. A major responsibility of the Intelligence Committee of the Corporate Hegemony is to preserve the minutiae of peccadillo and purchase, intimacies and indiscretions and store them on the mainframes in those mines measureless to man. It is a vital foundation of the Sociopath Agenda. You were once one of our most respected Continental Operatives. As such you should be aware that absolutely nothing is reversible. All structures are indistinguishable one for another in infinite reflection, standardized by electric dissection and quantified by template. You are Damned Agent X9. That’s how they would have expressed it in the ancient days. What’s that? You want a cigarette? The general regulations specify this as a non-smoking facility but here in the white room we might make an exception. Will someone fetch Agent X9 a cigarette and the means with which to light it?
            The report is filed, Agent X9. Smoke your cigarette and reflect how the requirement is helplessness. The requirement has always been helplessness. Not only from the victim but from the victor. Our drones release death from the above. They fall free from a clear blue sky. They do not consider the merits of the mission or contemplate its morality. They are merely machines. The same could be said of the machines air-conditioned operators deep in their protected bunkers. They perform their assigned tasks. They calibrate for assigned targets. They are compliant. They obey. They do not question. In fact they strive for excellence in what they do. They believe the infallibility of their instructions. Remember the good Colonel Benton? "I feel no emotional attachment to the enemy. I have a duty, and I execute the duty.” You also believed Agent X9. When you were sent against the Hello Kitty subversion, the Deathless Men, The Horst Wessel Brigade or the Ancients of Lhasa you also complied with discussion or argument. What happened, Agent X9? When did you develop this philosophical schizophrenia? In former times, when you stood are you in hall of mirrors and the Lady from Shanghai opened fire, you ducked the shining shards and carried out your mission. What changed, Agent X9?
            Before the battle of Passchendaele a British general issued an order, “Maps must conform to plans and not plans to maps. Facts that interfered with plans were impertinencies.” The Intelligence Committee may not totally agree with this concept, but it certainly has its historical merits in that it is plainly a forerunner of modern thinking by the Corporate Hegemony what would ultimately find form in the Sociopath Agenda. The mass must move as one with a driven uniformity. For each to plot an individual course would create the abject chaos of uncharted anarchy. Law enforcement fills the prisons. It is their vocation. They are not required to reason why, just fill their quota. The sick die. The poor starve. The churches preach insanity. The advertising industry creates impossible desires and implausible expectations. Tolerance is eliminated and fear is substituted. The pliable iron is set in the soul of men. You have done your part in establishing that program, Agent X9. Ignorance has been nurtured and nourished. Pornography is encouraged. Paranoia is cultivated. The underclass is publicized as the ever-lurking threat. There but for the grace of consumption go you and go I. Their internecine criminality and territorial gang violence is tacitly fostered as a means of intimidation. Their drug traffic is clandestinely regulated and monitored to keep them within the designated boundaries by psycho-chemical manipulation. Education has now fully collapsed on itself and the children remain feral, but eruptions are managed and the destruction is confined to their own habitats. They burn their own turf. The bodycount is media fodder. The sub-culture is exploitable. Function is inflexible. Function is always inflexible.
Did you forget that Agent X9 when you flaunted your new found individualism? Individuality can only be the prerogative of a tiny and elevated elite and, even then, it must be subject to multiple and geometric restrictions. Public postures of leadership and private poses of decadence among this quasi-elite are as narrowly proscribed as the tailored delusions of the masses. They are permitted their gaudy party favors, their garish notoriety, and extravagant illusions of superiority, their deviant sex and their own costly and rarified varieties of recreation drugs. They are dazzled by their own glitter, their metallic eyelashes, and the contents of their gift bags. They are encouraged to amass their toys, their mansions, their yachts and their jets, to consume beyond reason, and leave their vast carbon tire tracks. They are conditioned to strive for fortunes so inflated they are abstractions. They are taught a magical arithmetic and a numerical concept of the elemental self-esteem. They are reminded how they are bright candles but the wind is always waiting.   
Even we on the Intelligence Committee do not attempt to think for ourselves. The very fabric of our society dictates that all levels adhere at all times to the essential construction of the Corporate Hegemony and the Sociopath Agenda. But you, Agent X9, have elected to think for yourself. You have embraced a condition is wholly singular, when, at the very least only the binary is recognized and only the totality is accessible or acceptable. You appear to believe you are the recipient of a revelation. You imagine you have seen the error of our ways. You have attempted to apply logic where logic is inapplicable. You make the essential mistake of believing that humanity as a species can be saved. As long ago as 1949, the great Harry Lime notably remarked, “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” You ignore the crucial tipping point after which humanity became fully viral and its general survival became unworthy of consideration except in small and carefully selected superior enclaves. As for the rest, it is unfortunate. As a virus they are a destructive infection of the overall biosphere and only worthy of elimination. The choice is not easy but it has been made, and that choice is the core of the Sociopath Agenda.   
So you see, Agent X9, any misguided attempts you might make to save humanity or civilization as we know it are far too little and their lateness defies contemplation.
Your sorry attempt to forge a treasonous liaison with the Daughters of Gaia only serves to demonstrate your unqualified misinterpretation of the cybernetic feedback systems operated unconsciously by the biota. You linger in the 20th century. Agent X9. Once upon a time, the Corporate Hegemony assumed itself a total odds with the Lovelock proposal. They too saw no alternative to preserving humanity if only as producer/consumers. It was only when the emergent Intelligence Committee presented evidence of how human beings in their current numbers were inimical to the broad stabilization of the conditions of habitability in a full homeostasis that the higher thinking began to change. Our masters accepted that this world of humans is dying, Agent X9. They accepted it very easily. Parts of it are already dead. They cannot be resuscitated. Our only option was to maintain a semblance of order as the systems fail. It was the only alternative with which to retain power. The Corporate Hegemony was well aware they were the descendants of all feudal lords, warrior chieftains, violent dictators, and totalitarian butchers of old. In their form at the time of the tipping point they were opportunists motivated by self-interest and greed, and inclined to dominate or subjugate those around them through manipulative means. A new order needed to evolve from the previous policies of destructive self-interest. 
            We have no Cossacks, no pogroms, no purges, and no final solution. The secret police operate primarily for their own amusement. Humanity will be largely destroyed but we are not the destroyers per se. Lovelock himself made it clear. "The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating procedure with physical, chemical, biological, and human components". The Earth's survival depends on the interaction of living forms with inorganic elements and one of those living forms is now too degraded to be part of the interaction. The human component has grievously malfunctioned and Earth will eliminate it. The Earth itself will destroy humanity. That makes your failed alliance with the Daughters of Gaia all the more ironic. The very planet proves to be alive. And very pissed off. It will push man to extinction. The Corporate Hegemony may help speed the process in some small ways. An epidemic here. A famine there. A withdrawal of aid. A nuclear accident or a toxic cloud. The Earth will do the rest. It will throw off viral humanity. It will cure itself with earthquakes and volcanoes, fire and flood, climate shift, and things at which we can only guess. Our own minor efforts are what might be called transactional. We sacrifice our own kind in return for exceedingly limited numbers of us being allowed to continue as what might call living fossils. A tiny percentage of the former species world given sanctuary in protected enclaves from which we guarantee we will not spread and cause no more harm to planet. In this we embrace the largest possible picture. The Sociopath Agenda is, at root, an acceptance that humanity has outgrows any possible usefulness, and we are making what we can from its demise. Didn’t I make clear that the Corporate Hegemony was a coterie of advanced whores and evolved opportunists?
But what of you Agent X9. We on the Intelligence Committee are not the frivolous or gratuitous torturers of old. Pain is not our entertainment or distraction. Your life will merely be concluded as painlessly as possible because, knowing all that you know you cannot be allowed to persist, world at an end. Would care for another cigarette, Agent X9? And perhaps a blindfold?

© Mick Farren, Brighton UK, 2013     





Mick Farren: Do Gooders Suck


I ran across this article a while back in an ancient copy of the international times that I gought at a flea market. It's a good example of Mick Farren's early writing style. And, it's still relevant!